Every child knows that the wise son is the hero of the seder, while the wicked son is the villain. The wicked son asks, “What is this work for you?” utilizing an expression of “lachem – for you,” extricating himself from that service. Yet the wise son does not seem to be very different. His question is “What are the testimonies, laws, and judgements that Hashem, our G-d, commanded you?” He may be wise in the sense that he discerns that there are different classifications of laws and mitzvos performed at the seder – testimonies, laws, and judgements. Nevertheless, he too clearly states that all those laws were commanded to “you” and not “to us.” The fact that he refers to Hashem, “our G-d” only furthers our confusion about this child. Does he want to be part of it or not?
I’m not sure why but it’s a simple moment etched in my memory. I am five years old and have just arrived at the Polisher Shtiebel on the Lower East Side with my father for Shabbos morning davening. My father opens my siddur to mah tovu, which is where I begin davening in school each morning. But I shake my head. “No, Abba, I want to daven what you are davening.” In my mind I thought children had a different davening than adults. My father shows me that he not only says the same tefillos as I do, but he even begins a few pages earlier with donning his tallis. I am content with his response and begin mah tovu. [I should add that I also have a distinct memory driving little matchbox cars up and down the tables in the shtiebel. That may have been three minutes later.]
When the wise son asks his father to explain “the testimonies, the laws, and the judgments that G-d has commanded you” his intention is not to exclude himself. Rather he wants his father to explain it to him in all its depth. He doesn’t want the watered-down version taught to children. He strives to understand the true meaning of everything being performed at the seder. He wants his father to explain it to him the way his father learned it from his rebbe, with all the details and intricacies.
Judaism does not necessarily laud one who knows many facts. When the Torah refers to a chacham it refers to one who possesses a deep desire for knowledge. The wise person is not satisfied knowing just the what. He also wants to know the who, the why, and the when. He seeks to learn lessons from everyone and everything that happens around him (see Avos 4:1).
I remember my ninth grade rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Katzenstein, lamenting the fact that we live in a world not embarrassed of its ignorance. There was a time when people strove to be well-educated, to know facts, and to understand things – not because they had to know, but because they wanted to know. They felt that it was part of their humanity – to know, to seek, to ponder, and to challenge.
Today however, many people are quaint with being the sheaino yode’a lishol, the son who does not ask. That son does not fail to ask out of a lack of intellectual acumen, but because he is apathetic. The lure of Instagram and TikTok is more intriguing than the symbolism of korbon Pesach. The latest version of the iPhone is more glamorous than the dispute between Rashi and Tosafos. In fact, he may be more enamored with the clarity of a nature scene on his brand new tablet, than he is to see the real nature scene.
During Chanukah 5774, my family celebrated the wedding of my younger brother Yaakov in Yerushalayim. The morning after the chasuna my older brother, R’ Yitzie, and I had the pleasure and privilege to spend some time in private conversation with our rebbe and former rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Berel Wein.
At one point during the conversation I mentioned how much effort we expend to inspire our students. Rabbi Wein stopped me and said “That’s the key. We have to inspire our students; that’s the way to connect and be mechanech students today. In fact, it’s our only hope.”
If we can foster within our children a desire to know and understand, then we have raised a truly wise son. He may not know much yet, but the desire and unquenchable thirst for knowledge is the most important component of the journey.